The key to effective lawyering is good communication, which is challenging when representing a client who speaks a different language. This is often the case when pro bono attorneys take on clients needing assistance with immigration proceedings. Without proper communication, an attorney cannot zealously advocate for the client and an anxiety-inducing court process will be all the more terrifying for a client that feels unheard and cannot understand the process or their attorney’s advice.

The following tips will help ensure that you and your client can communicate and develop a fruitful relationship.

Use an Interpreter

When representing a client who does not speak English, always find and use an interpreter. Do not attempt to work with a client using only document translators or online interpretation applications.

We recommend that pro bono teams try and use the same one or two interpreters throughout the course of a case. This allows the interpreter(s) and the client to build a rapport. When an interpreter comes to know a client, they can more effectively understand the client’s mannerisms and methods of telling their story. This is not always possible, especially when using a commercial service, but it is a best practice.

How to Find an Interpreter

Finding an interpreter is typically not difficult for most languages, though for less common languages it can take effort. In those cases, ask your pro bono mentors at Amica Center for help – they will often have ideas on where to find assistance.

For common languages, take these steps in looking for an interpreter for your pro bono client:

  • Determine if there is an employee at your law firm or organization that proficiently speaks the same language as your client. Doing so will save the expense of paying for an interpreter and allow for the pro bono team to use the same interpreter throughout the case.
  • Check with local non-profits that operate language services. These non-profits offer interpretation and translating services at reduced rates for pro bono attorneys. In the Washington, D.C., area, the primary service of this type is Ayuda (
  • Employ a commercial interpretation service. There are numerous companies that provide language services for legal teams. We recommend that if pro bono teams employ a commercial service, that the team ask for a discount based on the pro bono nature of the case.

Use your Interpreter Wisely

Finding an interpreter is only the first step is ensuring effective communication. You must use interpreter wisely and provide clear instructions. Take these steps before your first client meeting:

  • Clarify the interpreter’s role as only a transmitter of the client’s message. The interpreter is not to advocate for the client or attempt to convey what the interpreter believes the client is trying to say.
  • Ask the interpreter to interpret everything the client says and not to omit or “polish” the client’s words. Similarly, understand that the interpretation may be in “broken” English, or contain slang terms, if the speaks that way in his or her native language.
  • Ask the interpreter to follow the best practice of interpreting in the first person (i.e.: When the client says, “J’ai faim,” the interpreter should say, “I am hungry,” instead of “she is hungry”).
  • Instruct the interpreter to not have side conversations with the client.
  • Ensure that the interpreter knows that the conversation may include sensitive or traumatic topics. Telling the interpreter beforehand will help them prepare for the conversation.
  • Most importantly, stress the importance of confidentially to the interpreter and ask the interpreter to sign a confidentiality agreement.

Assist your Client to Use the Interpreter

The interpreter is not the only party that will need some instructions to ensure that the interpretation goes smoothly. Take time at your first meeting to speak to your pro bono client about the interpreter’s role and why the interpreter’s presence is necessary.

In addition to explaining the interpreter’s role, ask that the client speak slowly and take breaks often. The client should also allow the interpreter to finish speaking before responding and to feel free to ask for clarification from the interpreter. Advise your client that the interpreter may ask for repetition or clarification if the interpreter does not understand his or her statements.

The instruction to not have side conversations should also be given to your pro bono client.

Be Aware of Cues that Communication is Breaking Down

Even with the best interpreter and clear instructions, there will breakdowns from time to time. Keep an eye on your pro bono client’s body language and attitude for cues that communication is breaking down, including the following:

  • The interpreter appears to have trouble making sense of the client’s words, requiring several attempts to get through one message;
  • The client appears confused, angry, or flustered;
  • The client continually tries to correct or interrupt the Interpreter; and
  • The client attempts to bypass the Interpreter and speak in minimal English.

Working with an interpreter will take practice, for you and your pro bono client. Taking the time to find and properly use the right interpreter will make the process much smoother. Follow the tips in this installment of the Pro Bono Practice Tips Series and always feel free to ask for help from your pro bono mentor at Amica Center.